What is Windrush Day and why is it such an important part of British History?
Windrush Day is a day of remembrance in which members of the British public celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948, a ship remembered for bringing one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom. The ship carried 1,027 passengers, 802 of which gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean.
The ship’s arrival has become symbolic of the generation of Commonwealth citizens who came to live in the UK between 1948 and 1971 to help rebuild the country after the devastation of WWII. Known as the Windrush generation, this group of immigrants, and their descendants, are honoured for the enormous contributions they made to Britain’s post-war economy, as well as the impact they continue to make on British culture.
At the time, the Caribbean was part of the British Commonwealth, so newcomers were free to live and work in the UK. Many new arrivals took jobs in sectors which had been affected by the labour shortage, contributing massively to England’s economy. They worked as manual labourers and built roads; they drove buses; they cleaned hospitals and cared for the sick in what were the fledgling days of the NHS.
Windrush Day was only introduced as an official day of remembrance in 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the ship’s arrival. The gesture was also made in an attempt to help right a series of wrongs committed against the Windrushers that forced the government to publicly apologise in April of that year. In 2017, the Windrush scandal saw hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were from the Windrush generation, being wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights.
A majority of the Windrushers arrived as children on their parents’ passports and many lacked the documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK. The Home Office had destroyed thousands of landing cards and other records from the time of their arrival and placed the burden of proof on individuals to prove their residency pre-dated 1973.
Many were placed in immigration detention and were threatened with forcible removal, while others were deported back to their home countries. After this became public knowledge, then-Prime Minister Theresa May issued an apology for the deportation threats, and in response to the scrutiny that the government faced, then-Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced that the Home Office would commission a ‘Windrush Lessons Learned Review’.
Patrick Vernon OBE was the first to call for the commemoration of Windrush Day, launching a petition in 2013, followed by a campaign in 2018 at the height of the Windrush Scandal. Official backing was given when the Government announced that ‘Windrush Day’ would be celebrated on 22 June each year, supported by a grant to recognise and honour the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants and to keep their legacy alive and celebrate the diversity of Britain’s history.